Suplex sex, leotard busting Swanton Bombs and old school jackhammer action, is all part of the blood, sweat and bikinis in the wild world of W.W.E., or rather weird wrestling eroticism. This is the story of how one of the oldest sports known to man, entered the tangential world of all-American erotic wrestling and the Exquisite Mayhem contained therein.
In the mid-1960s, the aspiring photographer Theo Ehret entered the Grand Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles clutching his beloved humble Rolleiflex camera. At that time, he could not have possibly prognosticated the life he was about to beget as he creaked open the doors to the hushed amphitheatre of bedlam that would soon be bustling.
Wrestling had always been a big school sport in the States and neighbouring Mexico, but the gaudy and brutal live shows of entertainment wrestling were restricted to the hardy few amongst the demimonde who could stomach them. Then came the advent of TV in the 1950s and all of a sudden, through the filter of a screen that sort of organised brutality was what the world was craving to bring some pizzazz to their dismal daily lives.
Alongside this, came the rise of Cassius Clay, the deity of boxing who became Muhammad Ali, and suddenly semi-naked folks battering the dinner out of each other was primetime perfection. Ali, however, could only fight once every few months, whereas wrestlers were writhing and ragging themselves around routinely. For a television executive, this was manna from heaven, and the public lapped it up.
Heroes like Andre the Giant, the 2.24m tall 236kg behemoth, bestrode the Grand Olympic Auditorium like a Greek legend — and during his 20-year residency, Theo Ehret was there to somehow capture it all. His photographs had to encapsulate the airs and grace of the bloody furore on display while retaining a level of artistic decency. He had to portray the Coliseum-like melodrama without bringing the whole thing into disrepute. And he achieved this all – whether it be Ali centre stage, Andre the Giant or The Rolling Stones breaking up the wrestling with a rock show – in alluring monochrome glory.
However, the sport and music on display in the Los Angeles arena was not all that surfaced in the welter of the late snapper’s stunning Rolodex. Performative wrestling was, after all, borne from the demimonde, and when that became mainstream, it caused a replacement esoteric ring to shoot up. Naturally, the nude grappling from Plato’s days was always touched with a hint of eroticism no matter how much gladiators of old (and new) might try to disavow that, but in a backroom of the Auditorium, it was an element that was set to spring to the forefront like an elastic babe cannoning off the ropes.
This offshoot was known as ‘Apartment Wrestling’ and Theo Ehret snapped it like a man possessed in a lusty frenzy of busty bodies. This craze appeased a rising male fantasy, but it was very much swept under the rug despite its large following in Los Angeles alone. In fact, the first major academic investigation to touch upon the oddity began years after the height of Ehret’s photography in 1984 with Dr Joseph Slade in the Journal of Communication.
In 2008, Dr Niall Richardson would opine that the Flex-rated fantasia was linked to the idea of fetishizing sex as opposed to the real thing. He cited Krafft-Ebing who said, “the fetish itself (rather than the person associated with it) becomes the exclusive object of sexual desire’ and therefore ‘instead of coitus, strange manipulations of the fetish’ are the sexual goal.” In short, it derives from the fact it is like sex. Perhaps this is linked to the territorial TV equivalent existing in an odd family-friendly guise in the next room?
While whatever caused this unique brand of eroticism to arise might remain obscure, at least in an academic sense, Ehret certainly captures it as it penetrated the mainstream. His images remain fascinating in this capacity as a small and strange snapshot of the dawn of pop culture and the weird worlds it spun out, come to the fore in his typically artistic style.
All the images below are from the fascinating Taschen publication book on the subject, Exquisite Mayhem: The Spectacular and Erotic World of Wrestling by Theo Ehret. Contained therein are not only some of his finest snaps, whether that be of Ali dishing out chin music or Alison miming the flute, but also info from the man behind the camera. As it also states: “An interview with Ehret adds his personal commentary to both sides of the wrestling scene, the legends he met along the way, and the interplay of fantasy, reality, and photography.”